Memphis Parents Seek To Halt Vaccine Program

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Parents in Memphis, Tenn., are seeking to stop a mandatory vaccination program aimed at quelling an epidemic of hepatitis, claiming that health and school officials have unfairly targeted black students for the shots.

The three parents, who are black, have filed a $500 million federal lawsuit against the district and the health department, contending that the inoculations constitute a "badge of slavery."

U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald last week denied the parents' request for an immediate halt to the vaccinations but did not rule on the overall case, which seeks both compensatory and punitive damages from the 109,000-student school district and the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department.

The parents are questioning the safety of a relatively new vaccine against hepatitis A, or infectious hepatitis, and the decision by local officials to administer it primarily to students from neighborhoods hit hardest by the illness.

Since early 1994, more than 2,000 cases of the disease have been reported in Memphis; nearly 90 percent of the victims have been African-American. At least one death and hundreds of hospitalizations have been linked to the disease, which is marked by fever, jaundice, and inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis A is spread primarily through fecal contamination.

The county health department began administering the vaccine last month at 14 Memphis public schools and requiring the roughly 13,500 students there to be inoculated. Students are barred from school if they have not been vaccinated within one week from the day the shots are given at their schools.

As of last week, roughly 250 students had not complied with the deadline. Health officials are to complete their round of in-school vaccinations this week.

County health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say there is nothing to fear from the vaccine, which was approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in early 1995.

Known as Havrix and manufactured by SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals of Philadelphia, the vaccine has been safely administered to millions of people worldwide since the early 1990s, health officials say.

"It is a marvelously safe and effective vaccine," said Dr. William Schaffner, an authority in preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University school of medicine in Nashville, Tenn., who helped organize the inoculation effort in Memphis. "It's among the best we have."

Assurances Questioned

But lawyers for the plaintiffs argue otherwise. They say the vaccine has not been tested to determine whether it could cause cancer, genetic mutations, or infertility.

Moreover, they say officials have done a poor job of informing parents about the vaccine and have targeted black children for immunization.

Peggy Jayne Lee, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the vaccinations stirred memories of the government-sponsored research study in Tuskegee, Ala., in which black men with syphilis in the 1930s were left untreated for decades to assess the disease's long-term effects.

"People were afraid that some sort of testing was going on," Ms. Lee said. "That's something that's never far from black people's minds."

School and health officials said they were appalled by such suspicions.

"Race was never once considered or looked at," said Denise Sockwell, a health department epidemiologist who is African-American.

Ernest Kelly, a lawyer for the school district, said about 85 percent of the children being inoculated are black; the school system overall is about 83 percent African-American. "It's not disproportional at all," he said.

School and health officials defend their public-information efforts. But under orders from Judge Donald, they are planning to step up community outreach and make more detailed information available in the schools.

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